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Will you still need a college education in 2040?

College enrollment rates are already falling. We asked six experts to explain how the workforce of the future will get trained.

Will you still need a college education in 2040?
[Source images: Slim3D/iStock; Woters/iStock]

Back in 2015, Heather Terenzio was giving a talk at a vocational school. After she provided an overview of the Boulder-based software development company she founded—Techtonic Group—a young man who helped cater the event came up to her. He told Terenzio that he’d been teaching himself to code for 10 years. He liked what Techtonic was doing, and said that if she were to hire him, she wouldn’t regret it. “We thought, well, why don’t we see what we can do with this kid?” says Terenzio. “He learned everything we taught him, and we had this epiphany that we were on to something interesting.”

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Techtonic had been struggling to find qualified developers, and outsourcing the work offshore just wasn’t cutting it. So why not create a formal program to allow people without a computer science degree to train for these jobs?

Today, Techtonic is the first Department of Labor-approved apprenticeship program for coding. Participants apply to be part of the program, and once they’re selected, the company trains them, while paying them from day one. After the training period, Techtonic pairs each participant with a senior staff member to work on a client project. At the end of the program, Techtonic (or one of Techtonic’s clients) hires the apprentice.

Coding-based apprenticeships may be a recent development, but Terenzio predicts that in 20 years, more and more companies will adopt similar models. “I can see it in every industry: healthcare, medical billing, other kinds of jobs,” Terenzio says.

Many workplace and higher education experts agree. We talked to six professionals whose work involves predicting the nature of education and upskilling in 2040 and what the workforce is likely to demand from employees. They all shared the consensus that change is the only certainty. Workers, employers, and education providers alike need to be agile, flexible, and prepared to adapt as technology continues to disrupt industries and change what jobs will and will not be available. Here’s what else they had to say:

1. Traditional colleges will be forced to adapt to meet the needs of employers

Rising student debt and uncertain returns on investment have many questioning whether college is still worth it. According to a 2019 survey by PayScale that polled 248,000 recipients, 66% had some regrets over their college experience, with student loans being the main reason for their dissatisfaction. Fast Company also recently conducted its own informal Twitter poll on how useful college is likely to be in 2040, and 69% of the 3,911 respondents agreed that a degree would be “less useful” than it is now.

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So what will colleges look like in 2040? According to Ryan Craig, cofounder and managing partner of University Ventures, a fund that invests in education companies (including Techtonic), we’re going to see the biggest shifts among nonselective colleges—that is, colleges with acceptance rates of 50% and higher. “They will have to eliminate departments, programs, functions, merge with each other, and ultimately become more focused on employment and employability,” says Craig.

“Two decades ago, there was this general thought [among colleges], our job is not to be vocational institutions,” says Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., president and CEO of the Society of Human Resources Management. Instead, the purpose was for “lofty academic pursuits” and teaching individuals to become more well-rounded individuals.

Now, and likely in the future, employability and return on investment are at the top of the mind for many prospective students. “I think the market made education shift,” Taylor says. Combined with declining enrollment due to the falling U.S. birth rate, colleges will have no choice but to focus on more practical-based training and change their curriculum to meet the demands of employers, he says.

As for the merits of colleges, both Taylor and Craig believe that it will remain a pathway to a good first job, but not the default one as it is for so many today. Craig believes that for those who can get admitted to a selective university without incurring large amounts of debt, a four-year college education remains the best choice. But for everyone else, an alternative path might be the best way to go.

2. We’re going to see more and more alternatives to traditional colleges

One of those training paths will be company-sponsored apprenticeship programs, says Craig. In his book A New U: Faster and Cheaper Alternatives to College he calls this type of arrangement “last-mile training.” Essentially, “it’s the skills that are missing between the secondary ecosystem and what employers are looking for.”

Boot camps are what Craig calls version 1.0 of the last-mile training model. They may be faster and cheaper than colleges, but many still require the applicants to incur financial risks by paying tuition fees upfront without the guarantee of a job. And even for graduates, Craig says, companies have what he calls “hiring friction”—where they are reluctant to hire candidates who have never done the job the company is hiring them for, let alone entry-level candidates who are just starting out in their careers.

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Version 2.0 of last-mile training, according to Craig, is educational providers who adopt an income-share agreement. Rather than charging tuition upfront, students only pay a percentage of their income if they secure a job that meets a specific income threshold (for example, over $40,000). But while this eliminates the financial risk, it doesn’t solve the problem of hiring friction. Employer-sponsored apprenticeships eliminate both.

Terenzio and Taylor see employer-sponsored apprenticeships as a positive trend. But not everyone in the training and education space is on board. For starters, not every company can afford to introduce this kind of program. Also, when a company is in charge of their employees’ education, “it locks the employees into a company’s way of doing things,” says Scott Latham, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. For instance, an engineer may get versed in Amazon Web Services. That may prepare them for a great career at Amazon, but it doesn’t allow for a great deal of mobility across the tech sector.

Craig believes that the sweet spot will be “intermediaries that can build into their business model a commercial incentive to provide, train entry-level talent, and scale.” Here, Craig is referring to staffing and business services companies that are able to train individuals at a large scale—in addition to matching candidates to specific roles. He predicts that they will explode “in a good way,” and as a result, he’s placing University Ventures’ focus on funding these types of companies.

3. Soft skills will continue to be important, but most jobs will require a high level of technological competence

In today’s workforce, there’s a growing emphasis on “soft skills.” Many workplace experts predict that it’s these skills that will help workers differentiate themselves from their peers when they are applying for a job. These skills include communication, empathy, mindfulness, creativity, collaboration, and leadership, according to Fast Company contributor Faisal Hoque. “As we hurtle toward our inevitable robot- and AI-filled future, these sorts of uniquely human capabilities may only be more essential,” wrote Hoque.

But the prevalence of automation will mean that more and more jobs will require an ability to work with new sorts of technology. “As an individual, you’re going to have to constantly ask yourself, how will the future of work technology affect my industry?” says Latham. A job in sales or marketing, for example, will require competence in navigating customer management software such as Salesforce. Nurses and doctors will have to work alongside robots. That means that along with having soft skills, workers of the future will need to be prepared to perform jobs with a strong technological component.

4. Specialists will be more valued than generalists

The rise of the gig economy and contract work in roles that were once the purview of traditional employment is one of the main ways that technology has changed the job landscape. Micah Rowland, the COO of Fountain, a recruitment platform for gig and hourly workers, believes that we’ll continue to see this trend in 20 years’ time.

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What will change, according to Rowland, is the extent to which specialists will be valued over generalists. He gives the example of legal services. In the past, a small business owner may go to a local lawyer to take care of their legal needs—both for their business and their personal affairs. In the future, that business owner will have greater access to legal talent and services—beyond their immediate proximity and geography—depending on their specific needs. They may engage one lawyer to help them sort out their tax affairs and another to help them write a will. Possibly neither of these lawyers will live in their city, and 100% of their interaction is likely to take place virtually. More and more of those transactions will occur on an as-needed, one-off basis, says Rowland.

5. Microcredentialing will become more prevalent

As technology continues to transform various industries, what employers are looking for from employees will change at a faster rate. Latham says, “The best-case scenario is that there will be a disruption that occurs, and jobs won’t be destroyed but will be changed, and someone who was doing accounting will now do the same job but they need to know how to work with an artificial intelligent bot.”

“That’s going to require a lot of upskilling,” says Latham. “The worse-case scenario is the reskilling, and that is if AI, drones, and automation destroys jobs and these people need to be reskilled into new industries and learn new skills. We’re probably going to end up somewhere in the middle,” Latham predicts.

Whether it’s upskilling or reskilling, experts predict that microcredentialing will be a big trend in the future. Workers will continually need to upskill and reskill as employers’ needs shift. Latham believes that we’re going to see “small bites” education. Workers will be able to obtain certificates in cybersecurity, for example, without necessarily having to complete a degree. In turn, educational providers will be more and more specialized in their offerings. Just like coding boot camps, there will be more and more training institutions that focus on one particular industry.

6. Lifelong learners and companies that encourage a culture of learning will be the ones to thrive

If there’s one other thing apart from change that most professionals in the training and education space agree on, it’s the belief that those who choose to see their careers as a sequence of continuing education will be the ones to thrive in the future. It’s not enough to be smart, says Taylor. Good workers of the future also need to be curious. “Curious people see what’s coming around the corner. Curiosity will keep you ahead of the game.”

As for employers, companies that cultivate a culture of learning will be the ones who benefit. Leah Belsky, chief enterprise officer of online learning platform Coursera, says that “facilitating training will become part of a manager’s role. I think direct learning is going to be a core part of that.” She explains, “Companies are now realizing that to sell their technology, they need to get into the education space. They realize that they are limited in how much they can grow because there aren’t enough skilled professionals.”

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At the end of the day, “none of us really knows what the future looks like,” says Taylor. “You just have to be comfortable being uncomfortable.”

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About the author

Anisa is a freelance writer and editor who covers the intersection of work and life, personal development, money, and entrepreneurship. Previously, she was the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section and the co-host of Secrets Of The Most Productive people podcast.

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